The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which encompasses all 10 Southeast Asian countries, is steadily growing in importance on the global stage both politically and economically. ASEAN has often played a leading role in Asia-Pacific regionalism, including through the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). With a growing population of nearly 650 million, a combined GDP of $2.98 trillion and a steady GDP growth of approximately 5 percent annually, the ASEAN countries together also represent a highly attractive market. Kazakhstan has long recognized ASEAN’s importance and has tried to step up its engagement with ASEAN and participate in ASEAN-led mechanisms. However, due to a moratorium in place on new memberships in the ARF as well as on applications for new ASEAN dialogue partners, Kazakhstan has not yet been successful in formally participating in ASEAN-led mechanisms. Nonetheless, since January 2014, Kazakhstan has appointed its Ambassador to Indonesia as its first Ambassador to ASEAN.
Another obstacle to closer relations between Kazakhstan and ASEAN so far is the vast geographical distance and relatively weak transport and logistical links between Kazakhstan and the ASEAN countries. This has hindered trade and economic cooperation. ASEAN Secretariat figures show that trade turnover between Kazakhstan and ASEAN in 2017 was $579 million, which was only 0.03 percent of ASEAN’s total trade with the rest of the world that year. Figures from Kazakhstan’s Committee on Statistics of the Ministry of National Economy are higher at $975 million in 2017, but this is still only 1.25 percent of Kazakhstan’s total trade with the whole world. The share of Kazakhstan and ASEAN in each other’s total trade has therefore been very low.
However, two factors have opened up new opportunities for greater Kazakhstan-ASEAN engagement. The first is Kazakhstan’s central role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has stimulated growing interest among ASEAN countries in developing economic and transport linkages between ASEAN and Kazakhstan, as well as other Central Asian countries. China’s BRI encompases the Silk Road Economic Belt, which was announced by President Xi Jinping in Astana in 2013, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, announced in Jakarta the same year. This initiative presents greater possibilities for exploring ways to connect Southeast Asia with Central Asia. Due to Kazakhstan being the largest country in Central Asia and its central location, it plays a key role in China’s BRI and has therefore attracted greater interest from ASEAN countries. The launch of the then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Nurly Zhol infrastructure program in 2014 firmly linked Kazakhstan’s transport infrastructure to China’s BRI, making Kazakhstan an important transit and trade bridge between Asia and Europe.
Another attraction for ASEAN countries is the fact that Kazakhstan has the most developed economy and infrastructure in Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s Khorgos dry port on the border with China, its logistics terminal in China’s Lianyungang port, its Western China-Western Europe international highway, and its Aktau port on the Caspian Sea are all attractive advantages for ASEAN countries to explore for transporting their goods to Central Asia and onwards to Europe faster and perhaps at a lesser cost. For example, transporting goods between Europe and ASEAN through the Lianyungang port and the land route between Khorgos and Lianyungang is at least twice as fast as through the Indian Ocean, saving both time and money which is particularly advantageous for the transport of food and other perishable goods. In March 2019, Vietnam started to use the train route through China and Kazakhstan to transport its goods, starting from Hanoi and ending in Duisburg, Germany. Goods between Kazakhstan and Vietnam can also be transported via the Kazakhstan terminal in Lianyungang port. Other ASEAN countries, such as Thailand, have also begun to explore the possibility of using such routes to overcome the logistics and transport obstacles they currently face.
The second factor is Kazakhstan’s membership of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The EAEU, which also encompasses Russia, Belarus, Armenia and the Kyrgyz Republic, has a combined population of nearly 184 million people and a combined GDP of approximately $1.9 trillion, representing an attractive market for ASEAN countries. EAEU members themselves are increasingly looking toward Asia for new markets and economic cooperation. Closer economic cooperation between the EAEU and ASEAN is being explored by both sides. The Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), the EAEU’s regulatory body, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on economic cooperation with the ASEAN Secretariat in November 2018. Some ASEAN member countries have also concluded free trade agreements with the EAEU or expressed interest in doing so. In May 2015, Vietnam was the first ASEAN country to sign a free trade agreement with the EAEU, which led to a significant increase in trade between Vietnam and Kazakhstan. In 2017, trade between the two countries increased by 48 percent reaching $542 million.
In October 2019, Singapore became the second ASEAN country to conclude a free trade agreement with the EAEU, after which President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stressed the great potential in linking up the EAEU economic space with ASEAN. Other ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand have all signed Memorandums of Cooperation with the EEC, seeing it as a first step toward possible conclusion of a free trade agreement with the EAEU. The interest of ASEAN countries in strengthening economic relations with the EAEU presents opportunities for an increase in trade and economic interaction between ASEAN and Kazakhstan.
Other ways to enhance Kazakhstan-ASEAN relations may include greater cooperation between ASEAN and organizations that Kazakhstan is a member of, for instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). In April 2005, the secretariats of the SCO and ASEAN signed an MoU on cooperation in various security and socioeconomic fields. Cooperation between the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) and the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty (CANWFZ) can also be further intensified. For instance, Kazakhstan hosted in August 2019 a seminar on the Development and Strengthening of Consultative Mechanisms between Existing Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, which gathered representatives of all nuclear-weapon-free zones for consultations, including SEANWFZ and CANWFZ.
The increasing momentum toward Central Asian regionalism, with two Central Asia summits held in March 2018 and November 2019, is another area of possible Kazakhstan-ASEAN engagement. Kazakhstan, as well as other Central Asian states, can use ASEAN’s experience in successful regionalism as one model for developing Central Asian regional cooperation and can therefore engage more with ASEAN countries and the Secretariat to explore this possibility. Such views of ASEAN being one possible model for Central Asian regionalism have been put forward by experts in both Kazakhstan and outside the region.
To conclude, Kazakhstan’s central role in China’s BRI and its membership in the EAEU present new opportunities for stronger relations between Kazakhstan and ASEAN countries. Kazakhstan, as an important player in regional organizations like the SCO and CICA, as well as a key country in the burgeoning Central Asia region, can utilize its central role to enhance engagement with ASEAN. Furthermore, this momentum toward greater engagement between Kazakhstan and ASEAN should be accompanied by serious discussion and exploration of a suitable dialogue mechanism between them. Such a mechanism could perhaps be in the format of an ASEAN+Kazakhstan framework or a C5+ASEAN dialogue forum with all five Central Asian countries together, similar to the format the Central Asian states have with Japan, South Korea, the United States and India. This could start with the level of senior officials and would help mark a new chapter in Kazakhstan-ASEAN relations.
Paradorn Rangsimaporn is counsellor and deputy head of mission at the Royal Thai Embassy in Nur-Sultan, Republic of Kazakhstan. He is also an independent researcher with interest in relations between Southeast Asia and Russia and Central Asia. He has a DPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. The views expressed are his own personal views.